Thoracic vertebrae

Thoracic Spinal Cord Injuries Explained

The prognosis following a spinal cord injury will depend on a number of different factors. For example, the location where the damage occurs on the spine will significantly determine which parts of the body are affected and to what extent.

The severity of the damage is also a hugely significant factor that needs to be taken into consideration.

  • A spinal cord injury that is complete means sensation and mobility below the damaged area will be fully compromised.
  • An incomplete injury generally means that the effect will be partial with some functions affected whilst others may work normally.

The spinal cord is divided into different sections: cervical (neck), thoracic (chest), lumbar (lower back) and sacral (base of the spine).

Anatomy of the Spine
Anatomy of the human Spine

Generally speaking, injuries sustained higher up on the spine will be more severe and negatively affect more areas of the body.

For example, a complete injury to the neck can result in full paralysis. Damage to the lumbar region may only affect the legs and lower organs.

Here we take a closer look at the impact of an injury to the thoracic vertebrae and what this may mean for the individual.

Thoracic Vertebrae (T1-T12)

The thoracic vertebrae are located between the neck and the lower back, generally covering the area of the chest. There are 12 vertebrae in all and each segment has nerves travelling to central parts of the body.

Their individual functions include:

T1 vertebrae

Transmits messages to and from the forearm and the wrist. It also influences areas such as the oesophagus and heart.

T2 vertebrae

Transmits messages to the back of the upper arm but also has an effect on the heart, including the opening and closing of valves.

T3 vertebrae

Sends nerve signals to and from the lungs, bronchial tubes, and chest.

T4 vertebrae

Sends signals to control heartbeat, lungs, muscular contraction, the gallbladder and breathing.

T5 vertebrae

Controls areas such as circulation, the stomach and is involved in liver function.

T6 vertebrae

Controls the liver, peritoneum and duodenum.

T7 vertebrae

Sends signals to areas like the kidneys, spleen, large intestine and testes.

T8 vertebrae

Controls areas such as the liver, adrenal cortex, gallbladder and stomach.

T9 vertebrae

Transmits messages to and from the stomach, spleen and pancreas and is involved in controlling functions relating to the ovaries and uterus in women.

T10 vertebrae

Shares many of the purposes as the T9 vertebrae including sending signals to the pancreas and large intestine.

T11 vertebrae

Controls the urinary bladder, Ileocecal valve and adrenal medulla and cortex.

T12 vertebrae

Controls lymph circulation, small and large intestine and urinary bladder.

Thoracic Spinal Cord Injury Causes

Vehicle accident
Vehicle accidents are a common cause of thoracic spinal cord injuries

Thoracic spinal cord injuries are rarer because the area is protected by the rib cage so it’s a lot more difficult to damage compared to the neck area. Because of this, incomplete injuries are more common which means that the prognosis in terms of recovery is usually better.

The most common causes of thoracic spinal cord injury include:

  • Automobile accident
  • Trauma or injury
  • Tumor and infection
  • Defect present from birth

Thoracic Spinal Cord Injury symptoms

Where the injury occurs is going to be a defining factor for all those with a thoracic spinal cord injury.

Patients that have an injury between T1 and T8 will experience a range of symptoms:

  • They may experience a lack of function in the legs and torso.
  • Damage to T1 can mean there is some loss of dexterity in the fingers.
  • There may be an inability to control the muscles of the stomach area.
  • Bowl and bladder function can be affected.

Patients that have an injury between T9 and T12 will typically:

  • Maintain good upper body control and have good balance while sitting up.
  • Lack function in the legs and lower body, particularly for areas like the abdominal muscles.
  • Have issues with bladder and bowel control.

They may also be able to stand using a specialist frame or support device.

Treatment and Recovery Following a Thoracic Spinal Cord Injury

As with any spinal injury, immediate medical intervention is vital to ensure the best outcome. Patients with complete injuries are likely to be paraplegic but will retain control of upper body function, including the arms.

Treatment for a thoracic spinal cord injury could include surgery to take out a bone fragment or ease a compression. Traction may also be used in more moderate cases.

Rehabilitation and recovery will often involve learning to use an assistive device such as a wheelchair. Physiotherapy and occupational therapy are normally combined to help improve physical ability and provide support. Some patients with T1 damage may also have problems with speech that can be improved with the help of a speech therapist.

A thoracic spinal cord injury can be severe but rarely causes a fatality. Long term prognosis and recovery with the right support is good but early intervention is vital when treating either a complete or incomplete injury.